MINNEAPOLIS – “On May 25, 2020, George Floyd died,” prosecutor Steve Schleicher said in court Monday as closing arguments began in the murder trial of Derek Chauvin. “Facedown on the pavement, right on 38th and Chicago.”
At that moment, three miles due south, at the dead center of the intersection of 38th Street and Chicago Avenue, a giant metal Black Lives Matter fist rose skyward, surrounded by photos of Floyd and other victims of racist violence. For a full block in all four directions, residents barricaded the streets to traffic. Murals, memorials and countless mementos are everywhere. Hardly a piece of litter could be seen. Snowflakes flew through a freezing wind as two dozen community members gathered around a fire pit, setting the agenda for another day at ground zero of the largest movement for racial justice in American history.
The Chauvin trial was being livestreamed around the world, but not at George Floyd Square. They started out broadcasting it on a large screen, but turned it off weeks ago. The people here, residents as well as visitors from around the country, are focused on healing, praying, and grieving. On resistance and self-empowerment. On the pursuit of larger changes that must be won, regardless of whether the Minneapolis police officer is found guilty of second-degree murder, second-degree manslaughter, and third-degree murder for kneeling on Floyd’s neck for what now seems like an eternity.
“Nine minutes and 29 seconds,” Schleicher told jurors Monday. Prosecutors must be precise.
“I don’t do the trial thing,” said Eliza Wesley, a neighborhood resident known as the Gatekeeper, as she scanned the perimeter of the Square. “It might not be what I want it to come out as. I close my mind to that so I don’t get ill feelings.”
“I haven’t watched a minute of that trial,” said Marcia Howard, a leader of the local neighborhood group that set up the barricades and supervises the area as a quasi-autonomous zone. “I haven’t watched a minute of it because I’m busy occupying four city streets of a major American city.
“We just continue to hold the streets here in grief and indignation and commiseration and determination,” said Howard, a former Marine turned schoolteacher who has lived here since 1998. She can see the spot where Floyd was killed from an upstairs window of her home. In August, she and her fellow organizers issued a list of 24 demands of government officials that address injustices decades in the making. They range from wanting several local law enforcement officials to be fired to requiring investment in neighborhood jobs and health care.
“The work continues here because we need to make fundamental systemic change,” Howard said. “If you have a fire in a bedroom, you can go and get that repaired or remodeled. We are working on the foundation.”
Schleicher’s closing argument continued: “Believe your eyes. With unreasonable force pinning him to the ground. That’s what killed him. This was a homicide.
“Human beings need to breathe. Don’t accept any notion to the contrary.
“It violated policy. It violated the law. It violated everything that the Minneapolis Police Department stood for.
“This wasn’t policing. This was murder.”
As he spoke, more people arrived at George Floyd Square. Parents with their children. Members of the American Federation of Teachers, there to support Howard. A former soldier in full uniform.
A white man lingered somberly in front of a 10-foot-tall image of Floyd’s face, then crossed himself. “I was praying for justice, praying for George Floyd’s family, for Daunte Wright’s family,” said John McGovern, who renovates homes in the neighborhood. “Who’s next? It’s not fair, it’s not right.”
It was his first visit to the memorial. “If there is a God, which I believe there is, this is when I’d better start praying,” he said.
Frederick Ingram came from Florida as part of the teachers union delegation. “Where else would you rather be?” he said. “This is the pivot point for the nation.”
“It feels good,” Ingram said. “I feel that people want some love, people want some justice. This is what the opportunity to raise your voice feels like. They know that the eyes of the world are watching. … We’re hoping that this is a turning point. It won’t stop everything, but it can certainly start a whole lot of things. It can start police reform, it can start people looking after communities that have been largely left behind. That’s what we’re hoping for, and that’s why we came.
“Because if this community can be better,” Ingram said, “then my community can be better.”
As Chauvin’s lawyer, Eric Nelson, began his final statements, Chauvin looked up from the defense table, unmasked, chin jutting forward. Nelson’s arguments lasted almost three hours, as he tried to cloak Chauvin’s actions under a guise of reason and legality.
Nelson asked jurors to think about what happened before Chauvin’s knee was pressed into Floyd’s neck: “It all comes into play because human behavior is unpredictable and nobody knows it better than a police officer.” He talked about missing ingredients in chocolate chip cookies. He said he went to the same high school as the young woman who filmed Floyd’s death and the chief of police who testified that Chauvin did not follow proper procedures. He characterized the crowd as angry, calling that one of the most critical aspects of the case. He said the testimony of pulmonologist Martin Tobin, the most compelling prosecution expert on cause of death, was “filled with theory, speculation and assumption.”
“There’s lots of what-ifs that could have happened,” Nelson said. “What could have happened, what should have happened. Lots of them in lots of regards.”
Three miles to the south, none of that mattered. “We still have to hold George Floyd Square down,” said Wesley, the Gatekeeper.
“It represents solidarity, peace, unity, to be united for the people. So people can come here and mourn, grieve, and we let them know it’s gon’ be all right.”
George Floyd Square knows what happened. The Square is home to many of the witnesses. It has seen other Derek Chauvins. When the verdict comes, it comes.
Whatever the jury’s decision, there is more work to be done.